Prelate: Genetics Needs a Conscience

Vatican Conference to Consider Ethical Use of Knowledge

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By Carmen Elena Villa

VATICAN CITY, FEB. 18, 2009 ( Scientific investigation should grow and advance, but with an ethical conscience, especially in the area of genetics, says the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Archbishop Rino Fisichella affirmed this Tuesday at a press conference focused on an upcoming congress about genetics and the risk of eugenics. This congress is promoted by the academy on the occasion of its 15th general assembly, which will take place Friday and Saturday.

Archbishop Fisichella recognized the advances of investigations conducted over the past decade on the Human Genome Project, which have allowed the identification of thousands of hereditary diseases, thus avoiding many congenital ills.

He explained how genetics, «while on a premarital level and prior to conception is applied in order to verify the risk of being carriers of diseases, now is being applied to a prenatal level and implies — as you can imagine — problems of ethical character.» Due to this, he added, babies carrying diseases are killed in the womb.

Every scientific conquest generates possibilities and risks, the prelate contended. He noted that the trend of eugenics is not just a theoretical question, but is rather «a mentality that spreads slowly but inexorably.»

He continued, «As often happens, a subtle linguistic formalism coupled with good advertising supported by powerful economic interests makes [us] lose sight of the real underlying dangers, and tends to create a mentality that is no longer able to recognize the evil objective nor make a corresponding ethical judgment.»

For this reason, Archbishop Fisichella explained, the Holy See thought of convoking an international congress to «verify if in genetic experimentation there are aspects that tend toward and in fact set in motion an act of eugenics.»

He also criticized the accompanying reductive mentality that «tends to consider that there are people who have less value than others,» either because of their social status or «because of their physical condition, such as the disabled, mentally ill or those persons considered to be in a vegetative state, or elderly people with serious diseases.»

Middle road
The congress, the archbishop said, seeks to find a common path between extremes — that of the rejection of scientific progress and that of the rejection of ethics.

For this reason, he said, it should aim to enable the growth and progress of «the ethical conscience without which each achievement would only be partial.»
The congress, which will take place in the Vatican’s new synod hall, is expected to draw 400 participants, including physicians, biologists, theologians and philosophers. Its objective is to underline the current possibilities of medical intervention to combat genetic diseases and to analyze the development of eugenics from a legal as well as anthropological point of view.
The possible forms of eugenics will also be examined in order to make a global assessment and to offer guidance and criteria in line with the teachings of the magisterium of the Church, to be able to respond to this challenge.

Speaking at the conference, among others, will be Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, and Cardinal Antonio Cañizares, newly appointed prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments.

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